AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

by Dale Salwak

If you could meet one deceased literary figure, who would that be? What would you ask? What would you say, and why? In AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead, eighteen distinguished authors respond to this challenge by creating imagined conversations with a constellation of British and American authors, from Samuel Johnson to Jane Austen to Samuel


If you could meet one deceased literary figure, who would that be? What would you ask? What would you say, and why? In AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead, eighteen distinguished authors respond to this challenge by creating imagined conversations with a constellation of British and American authors, from Samuel Johnson to Jane Austen to Samuel Beckett to Edith Wharton.
Each chapter embarks on an intellectual, emotional, and often humorous voyage as the layers of time are peeled away, letting readers experience authors as they really were in their own era or, on occasion, transported to the present. As eccentric as it is eclectic, this collection takes the audience on a dizzying descent into a literary Inferno where biographers, novelists, and critics eat the food of the dead and return to tell the tale. Readers will take great pleasure in seeing what happens when scholars are loosed from the chains of fact and conduct imaginary interviews with deceased authors.
Covering 200 years of literary history, the essays in AfterWord draw upon the lifelong, consuming interest of the contributors, each fashioning a vivid, credible portrait of a vulnerable, driven, fully human character. As contributors appeal to what Margaret Atwood calls the deep human desire to “go to the land of the dead, to bring back to the living someone who has gone there,” readers are privy to questions that have seldom been asked, to incidents that have been suppressed, to some of the secrets that have puzzled readers for years, and to novel literary truths about the essential nature of each author.
Contributors to AfterWord are: Catherine Aird (on Rudyard Kipling), Brian Aldiss (on Thomas Hardy), Margaret Atwood (on negotiating with the dead), William M. Chace (on Ezra Pound), Nora Crook (on the Shelleys), Paul Delany (on George Gissing), Colin Dexter (on Alfred Edward Housman), Margaret Drabble (on Arnold Bennett), Peter Firchow (on George Orwell), Alan W. Friedman (on Samuel Beckett), Eugene Goodheart (on Jane Austen), John Halperin (on Edith Wharton), Francis King (on Oscar Wilde), Jeffrey Meyers (on Samuel Johnson), Cynthia Ozick (on Henry James), Jay Parini (on Robert Frost), Carl Rollyson (on William Faulkner), Dale Salwak and Laura Nagy (on literary imagination), Alan Sillitoe (on Joseph Conrad), and Ann Thwaite (on Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edmund Gosse, A. A. Milne, and Emily Tennyson).

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As in Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, the dead here communicate freely and imaginatively with the living—nearly 20 literary greats altogether—through essays, interviews, and playlets. The presentations and subjects are not all of equal value, and curiously, none of the subjects predates the 18th century: no conversations with Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare. This communion with the spirits includes a house call by Jeffrey Meyers on Dr. Johnson, who expounds on the fallacies of the American Revolution and the even more combustible topic of women; Cynthia Ozick's interview with a maddeningly elusive Henry James; Margaret Drabble's restrained essay on Arnold Bennett. Touching on the motivating fear of death inherent in the nature of authorship, these last two (previously published) pieces are among the most polished. An occasional jealousy or rivalry flares from the grave: Edith Wharton wants Pearl Buck (and us) to know that the Nobel Prize should have gone to her. But in many ways this fun idea fizzles into an academic approach presaged by a terribly sober-sided introduction.(May)
From the Publisher

 “Leavening its gothic logos with a bit of fanciful mythos, this eccentric and compelling volume provides rich and often surprising reading. What else could one ask of a book that seeks congress with corpses?”—Sean Latham, author, The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law and the Roman à Clef

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Copyright © 2011 University of Iowa Press
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ISBN: 978-1-58729-989-6

Chapter One


Negotiating with the Dead


When I was a young person reading whatever I could get my hands on, I came across some old books of my father's, in a series called Everyman's Library. The endpapers of that date were a sort of William Morris design, with leaves and flowers and a lady in graceful medieval draperies carrying a scroll and a branch with three apples or other spherical fruit on it. Interwoven among the shrubbery there was a motto: "Everyman I will go with thee and be thy guide. In thy most need to go by thy side." This was very reassuring to me. The books were declaring that they were my pals; they promised to accompany me on my travels; and they would not only offer me some helpful hints, they'd be right there by my side whenever I really needed them. It's always nice to have someone you can depend on.

Imagine my consternation when—some years later, and enrolled in a university course that required me to fill my gaps, Middle English among them—I discovered the source of this cuddly quotation. It was a medieval play called Everyman, in which Everyman is not on some pleasant country stroll but on his way to the grave. All Everyman's friends have deserted him, including Fellowship, who wanders off in search of a stiff drink as soon as he hears the proposed destination. The only loyal one is Good Deeds, who isn't up to the job of saving Everyman from the consequences of himself, being too feeble. However, Good Deeds has a sister called Knowledge, and it is Knowledge who offers to be the helpful guide on Everyman's ramble to the tomb, and who speaks the words I have just quoted.

The relationship between me and these books, then, was not as cozy as I'd once thought. In the light of their newly discovered context, the three round fruits toted by the Pre-Raphaelite lady looked positively sinister: I was acquainted by then with Robert Graves's book The White Goddess, and I felt I could recognize the food of the dead.

I remain rather amazed at the long-ago editors of this series, and their choice of design and epigraph. What possible help did they think Pride and Prejudice and Mopsa the Fairy were going to be to me on my leisurely hike to the crematorium?—though when you come to think of it, I suppose we're all on the same train trip, and it's a one-way ticket, so you might as well have something good to read on the way. And some lunch too—that must be where the fruit comes in.

The title of this essay is "Negotiating with the Dead," and its hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality— by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.

You may find the subject a little peculiar. It is a little peculiar. Writing itself is a little peculiar.

This hypothesis was suggested to me by several things. The first of them was a throwaway sentence in Dudley Young's book, Origins of the Sacred, to the effect that the Minoan civilization which once flourished on Crete left remarkably few written texts, and this was possible because the Minoans weren't overly afraid of mortality—writing itself being, above all, a reaction to the fear of death. Despite all the remarks about enduring fame and leaving a name behind them that are strewn about in the letters and poems of writers, I had not thought much about writing per se as being a reaction to the fear of death—but once you've got hold of an idea, the proofs of it tend to proliferate.

Here are a few of the citations drawn almost at random from the heaps of printed material piled on my study floor. "They're all dead now," begins Ann-Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees. "That [her brothers] Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer," says John Irving in his novel A Widow for One Year. And from Chekhov:

When a man in a melancholy mood is left tête-à-tête with the sea, or any landscape which seems to him grandiose, there is always, for some reason, mixed with melancholy, a conviction that he will live and die in obscurity, and he reflectively snatches up a pencil and hastens to write his name on the first thing that comes handy.

There are many other examples of this connection— not necessarily a fear of death, as in Timor mortis conturbat me, but a definite concern with it—an intimation of transience, of evanescence, and thus of mortality, coupled with the urge to indite. But let us take the connection as given, or as given in enough instances to establish a working premise, and ask ourselves: why should it be writing, over and beyond any other art or medium, that should be linked so closely with anxiety about one's own personal, final extinction?

Surely that's partly because of the nature of writing—its apparent permanence, and the fact that it survives its own performance —unlike, for instance, a dance recital. If the act of writing charts the process of thought, it's a process that leaves a trail, like a series of fossilized footprints. Other art forms can last and last— painting, sculpture, music—but they do not survive as voice. And as I've said, writing is writing down, and what is written down is a score for voice, and what the voice most often does— even in the majority of short lyric poems— is tell, if not a story, at least a mini-story. Something unfurls, something reveals itself. The crooked is made straight, or, the age being what it is, possibly more crooked; at any rate there's a path. There's a beginning, there's an end, not necessarily in that order; but however you tell it, there's a plot. The voice moves through time, from one event to another, or from one perception to another, and things change, whether in the mind alone or in the outside world. Events take place, in relation to other events. That's what time is. It's one damn thing after another, and the important word in that sentence is after.

Narration—storytelling—is the relation of events unfolding through time. You can't hold a mirror up to Nature and have it be a story unless there's a metronome ticking somewhere. As Leon Edel has noted, if it's a novel, there's bound to be a clock in it. He was the biographer of Henry James, one of the most time-conscious novelists that ever was, and so he ought to know. And once you've got clocks, you've got death and dead people, because time, as we know, runs on, and then it runs out, and dead people are situated outside of time, whereas living people are still immersed in it.

But dead people persist in the minds of the living. There have been very few human societies in which the dead are thought to vanish completely once they are dead. Sometimes there's a taboo against mentioning them openly, but this doesn't mean they're gone: the absence from conversation of a known quantity is a very strong presence, as the Victorians realized about sex. Most societies assign these dead souls to an abode, and sometimes to several abodes: if the soul after death is assumed to be divisible, or if there's more than one kind of soul, as among the ancient Egyptians, then each part or soul must have its own territory.

Societies also have a way of devising rules and procedures—"superstitions," they're now called—for ensuring that the dead stay in their place and the living in theirs, and that communication between the two spheres will take place only when we want it to. Having the dead return when not expected can be a hair-raising experience, especially if they are feeling slighted and needy, or worse, angry. "Remember me," as the ghost of Hamlet's father commands, is not the first such heavy injunction to be laid on the living by the dead, nor will it be the last. The unrequested arrival of a dead person is seldom good news, and may indeed be distinctly alarming. "Tomorrow in the battle think of me," says the ghost of murdered Clarence to Richard III. But to Richmond, Richard's adversary, the same ghost says, "Good angels guard thy battle! Live, and flourish," for although the dead have negative powers, they have positive and protective ones as well. Consider Cinderella's dead mother, purveyor of ball gowns and glass slippers.

A lot of the superstitions, or rules and procedures, governing life-death traffic involve food, because the dead are assumed to be hungry and unsatisfied. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is, among other things, a feast day for dead people. In addition to the sugar skulls eaten by children, and the jolly tin assemblages depicting skeletons having a whale of a time doing all the things the living do—dressing up, playing music or cards, dancing and drinking—the family will prepare a special meal for its dead people, with all their favorite foods, and perhaps even a basin and towel so they can wash their invisible hands. In some communities the meal is eaten by the family itself, right on the grave; in others, a trail is made—of marigold petals, usually—from the grave to the house, so the dead person will be able to find his way to the meal, and also make his way back to his proper domicile after it. The dead are considered to be still part of the community, but they are not permanent residents. Even the most beloved one is only a guest, to be treated with honor, consideration, and a bite to eat, in return for which the dead person is expected to behave as a good guest should, and go home when the party's over.

These are not by any means extinct practices, and similar ones—or vestiges of them—are widespread. I was talking about these matters a while ago with someone from Greece. He described a custom whereby a certain kind of bread is baked—it's round in shape, as the food of the dead often is—and on the day set aside for the dead, you are supposed to take this bread object to the ancestral tomb, and then persuade as many passing strangers as you can to take a nibble of it. The more strangers you corral, the better your luck will be in the coming year. Perhaps the strangers are the stand-ins for the dead, and giving them this special food is meant to propitiate them and ensure their support. Similarly, in Japan and China and many other cultures the ancestors must be given their share, at least symbolically. If they feel they've been respected, they'll help you. If not—well, it's always best to be on the safe side.

Then there's our own Halloween, a remnant of the pre-Christian Celtic night of the dead—primarily, now, a North American phenomenon. The spirits are abroad, and you need protection, so you make a pumpkin with a goblin face and a light inside it, to act as the guardian of your threshold. The dead are represented by children wearing masks and costumes—it used to be ghosts, witches, and goblins, but today it's just as likely to be Elvis Presley, Superman, or Mickey Mouse, whom we have apparently now claimed as ancestral spirits. These come to your door and demand food. "Trick or treat" is one of the verbal formulae—which means that unless the spirits get the food, you'll get the mischief. Again, giving food to the dead is supposed to propitiate them and bring luck to the living, even if that luck consists only in the freedom from being annoyed.

We lived in an old house in rural Ontario during the 1970s, and this house was haunted—so the local people said, and so some visiting the house experienced while we were there—and we asked the lore-conscious woman from the farm across the road what to do. "Leave food out overnight," she said. "Make them a meal. Then they'll know you accept them, and you won't be bothered." We felt kind of silly, but we did it, and it worked. Or, as the German poet Rilke puts it in a slightly different way, in his Sonnets to Orpheus, "Don't leave bread or milk on the table / At night: that attracts the dead."

It does make you thoughtful about Santa Claus and his milk and cookies on Christmas Eve, especially when you know that in Sicily the presents for the kiddies are brought on All Souls' Eve, not by a man in a red suit, but by the dead grandparents. Why should we be surprised? Santa Claus himself is from the Other Place, disguise it as we may by calling it the North Pole; and anyone from the Other Place—whatever we may name that other place—Heaven, Hell, Fairyland, the Underworld—will bring luck to us, or else keep us free from harm, only if given something in return—at the very least, our prayers and gratitude.

What else might the dead want? Various things, depending on the circumstances. Hamlet's father, for instance, wants revenge, nor is his desire unique: Abel's blood cried out from the ground after the first murder, thus giving us the first example of talking blood, though not the last. Other body products that have been known to vocalize include bones and hair, as in folk songs—consider the extremely widespread "Twa Sisters of Binnorie"—and folktales such as "The Singing Bone," the bone in question being a murdered girl's leg-bone that becomes a flute.

Modern stories about forensic pathologists, such as Patricia Cornwell's thriller-heroine Kay Scarpetta, or forensic doctor–anthropologists such as the protagonist of Michael Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost, are firmly of this tradition—such an old and persistent one because it's so elemental, interbound as it is with the desire for justice and the longing for revenge. When the blind old man in the Ondaatje novel "reads" a skull with his fingers, it's a recap of a very ancient scene. The premise is that dead bodies can talk if you know how to listen to them, and they want to talk, and they want us to sit down beside them and hear their sad stories. Like Hamlet laying a death-scene narrative injunction on his friend Horatio—"in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story"—they want to be recounted. They don't want to be voiceless; they don't want to be pushed aside, obliterated. They want us to know. The harp or other musical instrument made from the dead girl's hair in the "Twa Sisters" ballad speaks for them all when it denounces the murderer by singing, "Woe to my sister, false Ellyn." As Shakespeare said— or rather, as Macbeth says—"Blood will have blood."

But revenge and justice are not the only desires of the visitants from other worlds. Sometimes, as in many ballad apparitions— my love she came all dressed in white, and any other ex-inamoratas likely to materialize wistfully at your bedside before cockcrow—their desires are erotic, and they want you to go with them. Sometimes there's a demon-lover element. Sometimes there's a contractual one—you've sold your soul, and the creditor has come to collect. If we could sum up what all of them want, in one word—a word that encompasses life, sacrifice, food, and death—that word would be blood. And this is what the dead most often want, and it is why the food of the dead is often, though not always, round, and also red. Heart-shaped, more or less, and blood-colored, like Persephone's pomegranate.

Here is Odysseus, making the necessary sacrifice to attract the spirits of the dead, in Book XI of the Odyssey:

When I had finished my prayers and invocations to the communities of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats over the trench so that the dark blood poured in. And now the souls of the dead came swarming up.... From this multitude of souls, as they fluttered to and fro by the trench, there came an eerie clamor. Panic drained the blood from my cheeks.

As well it might. Odysseus sits beside the trench with drawn sword in hand, to keep any of the souls from drinking the blood until he gets what he wants, because he's there to do a negotiation, to make a trade. Of what he wants in return, more shortly.

The dead, then, are fond of blood. Animal blood will do, or for very special occasions, human blood. It's often the same thing gods want, not to mention vampires. So do think twice about Valentine's Day. I always do—I had a boyfriend once who sent me—in a plastic bag, so it wouldn't drip—a real cow's heart with a real arrow stuck through it. As you may divine, he knew I was interested in poetry.


Excerpted from AfterWord Copyright © 2011 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

 Dale Salwak is a professor of English at Citrus College. He is a frequent contributor to the London TIMES, the author of numerous books including Teaching Life: Letters from a Life in Literature (Iowa, 2008), Kingsley Amis: Modern Novelist and Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide, and the editor of The Wonders of Solitude, Anne Tyler as Novelist (Iowa, 1994), Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work (Iowa, 1989), and The Life and Work of Barbara Pym (Iowa, 1987).

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